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EADS CEO seeks IT industry help to speed up aviation innovation

Peter Sayer | March 5, 2013
But innovation speed mustn't come at the cost of aircraft safety, EADS CEO Tom Enders said at the Cebit opening ceremony.

"From the initial research work to its decommissioning, an aircraft's entire service life can amount to up to 90 years," said Tom Enders, CEO of aerospace manufacturer EADS and the invited speaker at the Monday night opening ceremony of this year's Cebit trade show.

That service life stands in sharp contrast to the way smartphones can move from first rumor to first sale in nine months, with some ending up on the scrap heap in another nine.

But Enders had more shock figures for tech buyers used to planned obsolescence and resigned to the unreliability of many consumer goods.

In an aircraft, he said, "From the first day to the last day, up to 3 million parts have to work perfectly, because the lives of over 3 billion people a year depend on compliance with safety standards. This is what differentiates the aviation industry from sectors whose models change frequently."

Bug fixes for smartphone operating systems or user-installed apps are pushed out over the air for months or years after their purchase, occasionally with undesirable consequences.

Things are different in the aircraft industry: Once supervisory authorities have certified a new type of aircraft, Enders said, all its software components are frozen, making the software technologically outdated by the time the airlines put the aircraft into operation.

There are good reasons for that caution, he said. "Windows XP has about 45 million lines of code. If one goes wrong, you just curse and reboot. In the worst case, you might lose a file. If a line of code goes wrong when you're landing a plane, you can't reboot. In the worst case, you might lose 500 lives."

Enders referred in passing to another kind of software disaster involving old and new technologies, one that cost no one their life but cost EADS billions: "If a cable is just a few millimeters out, production stops. That's what we learned the hard way." He was referring to production of the Airbus 380, elements of which were designed by EADS divisions in France and Germany using two different versions of the product lifecycle management application CATIA, version 4 and version 5. Differences between the two versions have been blamed for wiring looms not quite fitting the rest of the aircraft, bringing production to a halt.

EADS sometimes sticks with old technology in futuristic projects for other reasons. Bridget, an exploratory vehicle it is developing with the European Space Agency for a future mission to Mars, uses microprocessors developed in the 1990s. Between now and Bridget's launch in 2018, the power of new microprocessors will have tripled, Enders said, and by the time Bridget lands its processors will be 30 years old.


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